Know when to call in the experts, and when to go it alone.
by Lisa DolbearMany athletes will entertain the idea of working with a coach at some point in their career. For some, it starts early with the need to be introduced to the sport in a structured way. For others, it happens years after their first race when they seek to explore unused potential. No matter when you think about working with a coach, you’ll likely consider the idea of coaching yourself first. And it’s a tough question to answer.
As a long-time athlete and USAT Coach, I’ve trained myself through a steady stream of personal bests over the last five years, including a three-hour improvement at IRONMAN Lake Placid. After that, I turned to a coach for the first time since my collegiate track days to help me make the best use of my training hours.
Three days before my A-race, my coach dropped me with no warning, leaving me to ponder his exit and figure out Plan B for the upcoming season. I was faced with a decision. Recruit another coach for my next IRONMAN race, or train myself as I have for so many years?
Can I coach myself?
It all comes down to evaluating what you want and need as an athlete, and then seeing how well your resources and skills stack up. Former professional triathlete Amanda Lovato has coached herself before, and says that it forces her to listen to her body and its needs. She’s now a full-time mom, but when she was training heavily, Lovato would archive her training experiences in a way that enabled her to call upon them again in the future. She says she read a lot of books and had notebooks that contained certain workouts, plans, suggestions and tips from all the coaches she’d had. With this resource, she tended to duplicate previous workouts that worked for her in the past.
As an accomplished equestrienne, runner and triathlete, Lovato believes that having guidance early on in these sports was important. Over time she grew comfortable with her training needs and decided to write her own plans, with the support and advice of her husband Michael Lovato, also a pro.
Pro James Cunnama coached himself for almost three years before joining Team TBB under coach Brett Sutton. He says there’s a lot of freedom in coaching yourself. He says you can adjust your training to fit around other aspects of your life, or how you feel on a particular day. “Of course, this is also one of the biggest traps of being self-coached. It’s a double-edged sword, and a sharp one at that,” he says.
As Lovato and Cunnama will tell you, there are pros and cons to both choices. In five short months with my coach, I already saw improvements and was looking forward to another year under his guidance. However, I feel confident that I could pick up where the coach left off by pairing his techniques with my own. Since many athletes will be faced with this quandary at some point in their career, I’ve compiled some of the key issues you should consider as you determine your potential to be your own coach.
Coaches establish a sense of accountability, a powerful source of motivation for many athletes. When you’re reporting back to someone about a workout, it makes you work harder. We all like to hear constructive criticism (sprinkled with praise), but it’s hard to get that kind of feedback when the conversation is between you and yourself after a workout.
Ask yourself: Do I need others to be aware of what I’m doing to in order to do my best?
Yes: You might be able to get what you need from a group-training program, or simply sharing your experiences through a blog, where people can comment and provide feedback. Motivation and accountability can be cultivated without hiring a personal coach.
No: You feel secure in what you’re doing, but you’re looking for a little bit of an edge in your training. Hiring a coach can motivate you by taking the “same old training” and reinventing it with new techniques and ideas.
One of the biggest ways a coach can help you is to determine what a realistic training week looks like, and then help you make the best use of that time. But it’s something you can tackle on your own if you can be honest about what you can really bring to the table in training—both in terms of time and ability. The first priority is to allocate a set number of hours for working out each week (beware of the excuses you’ll generate along the way). The next priority is to listen to your body to ensure you’re making the best use of those training hours. If you feel worn out after a hard week, it might be time to move the recovery block up and save the longer, more intense workouts for another week.
Ask yourself: Can I stick to a routine that enables me to train appropriately?
Yes: All you need is common sense, an alarm clock, a calendar and a Sharpie. In my experience, the biggest time commitment in self-coaching comes from the prep work that’s needed to draft the game plan. It’s all about plotting the “dots” that need to be connected in order to end up with a certain picture. And if along the way your marker is running dry from one dot to the next, have the sense to put a cap on it and refresh before continuing on. (Injuries are the biggest time-suck out there, and they can usually be avoided by listening to the body and adjusting the workout as needed).
No: If your schedule is constantly changing, and you’re not sure how to effectively use your training time each week, a coach is a huge asset. Most coaches will deliver workouts in two-week blocks, with the ability to modify things as needed (whether it’s a change due to how you’re feeling, or a sudden need to be out of town with no access to a pool).
Pro take: Be realistic about your needs, and how they effect the time you have to train. A coach offers a lot of things, but for some athletes a coach might be necessary for just one specific reason. Says Cunnama, “I didn’t need a coach for motivation or drive. I needed someone to tell me when to rest and slow down.” Lovato reminds us that you don’t need a coach to help keep you on track—just an honest support system. “While I analyze and write my own programs, I am fortunate to have my husband support me. He’s not my coach, but he’s my partner and he sees me everyday. He knows me better than anyone, so if he thinks I’m too tired to push through a workout, he encourages me to stop. If he thinks I’m slacking off, he pushes me to get it done.”
Finding time to train can be stressful enough, but when it comes to analyzing your performance to track progress, things can get even stickier. Cunnama reflects on his own weakness in this area. “I often ran into trouble when coaching myself through what Brett calls, ‘paralysis through analysis.’ I worried about whether I was pushing too hard and risking injury, or being too soft to do what it takes,” he says. Juggling this uncertainty can turn any well-organized training plan into a minefield of stressful events. Self-coaching means you’re taking on the responsibility of not only picking the right workout, but also executing it effectively.
Ask yourself: Do I trust my instincts when it comes to training?
Yes: If you’ve been training for a few years—with or without a coach—you’ve likely accrued the experience necessary to “know yourself” as an athlete. This will enable you to read your body and make adjustments in your training as needed. You would surely benefit from some guidance or expertise in specific areas, but have the knowledge base to learn these things from other resources—such as books, magazines, one-day workshops, or aligning yourself with more experienced training partners.
No: If you find yourself feeling bogged down by the uncertainties in training, it might be worth hiring a coach. Mental stress can exhaust the body and have a negative impact on the ability of an athlete.
Pro take: Race day is all about the confidence and training that is built up over the course of several months. Your emotions in this period will have an effect on your success as an athlete. “I was not looking for technical advice or guidance,” says Cunnama. “I needed someone to take the entire mental load from me so I could focus on training.” With all the advances in technology, Lovato believes it’s easier than ever to keep tabs on key milestones in workouts, but there’s no substitute for “knowing your body” through experience. She says that back in 2008, she used to stress about how she did in workouts, but now that she’s more experienced she feels more grounded. “Power meters and GPS can help me determine if I’m physically on track, but you can overdo it with the data, so I try to remember to keep in touch with how fit or unfit I feel.”
While any one of these factors could lead you to hire a coach, it’s important to remember that most of us have the basics of the sport covered. Cunnama is happy with his current coach and has no plans to go back to self-coaching, but reminds us that we should never take that idea off the table.
“Self-coaching should be an option for almost all triathletes. Our sport is not terribly technical—we’re just swimming, biking and running—the three things we’ve done since we were five years old! However, there’s a lot to learn about yourself before you can be good at coaching yourself, and learning it through trial and error will take a lifetime. Hire a coach for a season or two, and trust them to show you things you never thought of before. Then, if you feel you can, try coaching yourself.”
Need some help coaching yourself? Download a training plan for your distance from our partners at Training Peaks.